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Anxiety: Understanding Its Biology

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Do you know what it feels like when you have anxiety? Probably so. But do you know why you feel anxiety symptoms or what to do to help your anxiousness? In this article, you’ll learn the biology of anxiety as well as tips for managing anxiety and stress—So you can calm down and get rid of anxiety for GOOD!

We’ve all felt it—racing heart, racing thoughts, sweaty hands, knots in the stomach, tense muscles in the neck, back, and jaw. Anxiety. We know what it feels like, but what is it and why do we experience it?

Anxiety Is a Good Thing

You might be surprised to learn that anxiety is a good thing. God designed our body to use an anxiety response to help us stay safe and be productive.

When we’re on a hike and a bear jumps out of the woods, our anxiety response prepares our body for survival. When our alarm goes off and we really don’t feel like getting out of bed, our anxiety helps us. The angst that comes from the thought of losing our job and not being able to pay our bills motivates us to get out of bed. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, he utilizes the anxiety pathway in our body to get our attention.

Anxiety is our friend, not our enemy. Without it we would be a mess.

But sometimes a good thing turns bad.

What God intended to be a friend to us can become a real enemy. When we are fearful of things we need not be or to an unhealthy degree, our anxiety begins to create some real problems for us.

Path to Anxiety

I find it helpful to have a basic understanding of the mechanics behind the anxiety we feel. Knowing how it works gives us the ability to influence what we can for the better. So let’s walk through the neurophysiology of anxiety together.

There is a complicated explanation from neuroscience that looks like this… A Diagram of Anxiety.

But I prefer simple explanations, so we’re going to use this visual Path to Anxiety

FACTS

Facts aren’t opinions; they’re data. We bring data about the world outside our body into our brain by way of our five senses. At this stage in the process, the data is just information; it doesn’t really have any meaning to us. Imagine I’m speaking mandarin to you. Now assuming you don’t speak Chinese, it’s going to sound like squirrel gibberish. It has meaning, but not to you. For you, it’s just noise brought into your brain from your ears.

So it is with all the images, smells, tastes, sounds, touch sensations you take in. It’s not until the next stage in the neurological journey that this data takes on meaning.

STORY

The story phase is the meaning-making part of our brain’s process. Our brain applies all that we have learned from our past experiences in life to make its best guess at the meaning of the data.

  • What does the data mean?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What were the intentions of the people involved?
  • Does it create danger (physical or emotional, tangible or intangible) for me or those I care about?

Our life experience greatly influences our interpretations of the data we experience. That’s why 30 people can observe an incident and walk away with very different ideas about what happened and why.

For any given set of data, there are an infinite number of stories that could be told. Your brain identifies the one that seems most likely to you based on your experience and runs with it.